FILM REVIEW: Under The Silver Lake is a Lynchian neo-noir love letter to Los Angeles & the Hollywood Dream that loses it’s way.


Ambitious & slickly made with a tour-de-force performance by Andrew Garfield, Under the Silver Lake ultimately bloats by not knowing where to stop or what to really say.

There’s something to be said for having an audacious and personal second feature as a filmmaker after making a big splash with a film that blows audiences minds. Richard Kelly’s 2001 film, Donnie Darko developed a large following based on a unique and original premise and followed that up with 2006’s decidedly unique and difficult to market personal film Southland Tales, exploring a Los Angeles in the not-to-distant future. Similarly, David Robert Mitchell made a huge splash with his indie horror It Follows and A24 rewarded him with the opportunity to make his latest film, Under The Silver Lake, opening this week in limited release and VOD. Under The Silver Lake, much like Kelly’s Southland Tales, is a love letter to Los Angeles, a stylish and slickly shot neo-noir paying a very open homage to Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Andrew Garfield plays Sam, a 30-something Hollywood hipster drifting through his life and looking for meaning in something, his collection of Nintendo Power magazines, a Kurt Cobain poster he’s proud to have gotten signed by Cobain’s daughter through a friend of a friend, or the casual relationship he enjoys with an unnamed actress (Riki Lindhome). As he spies on his naked neighbor with his binoculars one afternoon, he spies a gorgeous new neighbor named Sarah (Riley Keough). Through circumstance, he later meets her and they spend a great afternoon together that lifts him out of his ennui. However, Sarah shortly thereafter vanishes and Sam becomes ensnared in the mystery of trying to figure out what happened to her. Does it have to do with the disappearance of a world-famous billionaire playboy named Jefferson Sevance? Are their clues hidden in the music of the latest it band of the moment, Jesus and the Brides of Dracula? Or do the answers lie in the origins of an underground comic book zine called Under the Silver Lake?

Much like The Coen Brothers The Big Lebowski, Under the Silver Lake unfolds a hidden South Bay under the surface through the gaze of a would-be private detective tale. Mitchell is fascinated with many of the Southland’s hipster landmarks and crafts a tale that spans all over Los Angeles; from the movie screenings of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery to the Rebel Without a Cause Monument at the Griffith Observatory. The film’s geography is fascinating and shot beautifully. Riley Keough plays a rapturous version of a doomed damsel, a modern day Marilyn Monroe, down to her re-enacting the famous pool scene in 1962’s Something Gotta Give. Similarly, there are great performances in otherwise thankless roles brought to life by Jimmi Simpson and Topher Grace as Sam’s hipster friends, Buddy and Allen. The main problem with the movie falls at the focus, or lack thereof. Mitchell wants to clearly tell a tale about Los Angeles and pay homage to the films of Hitchcock and classic Hollywood, down to a score by Disasterpeace that more than subtly plays at evoking the work of Bernard Herrmann. That being said, the film’s meandering gaze while at first seeming to echo the work of David Lynch in Mulholland Drive by the halfway point in the film’s 2 hour and 19-minute runtime drags and more than invokes Lynch’s Inland Empire in terms of being too self-indulgent. Similarly, while invoking Hitchcock throughout, there are too many MacGuffins in the film that slow the film’s pace to a crawl in scenes that while visually impressive, ultimately add little to the plot (this includes a live performance by one of the Brides of Dracula in Hollywood Forever’s mausoleum decked out as a gothic concert hall in a sweeping one-shot panorama; pretty but adds little to the film). The film’s fictional band, Jesus and the Brides of Dracula (with actual music provided by Silversun Pickups), becomes important as Sam becomes convinced their music contains messages for the rich and upper classes that may hide a clue to his friend’s disappearance that becomes a rich subplot exploring the possible disassociative nature that Sam hides (we earlier see a scene where Sam beats the shit out of a couple of children vandalizing cars that suggests he may be crazy), but becomes a MacGuffin of its own, a Wizard of Oz-like quest for meaning in life and pop culture to aid Sam out of the sense of failure he feels as a disaffected male who has accomplished nothing in his life. This is a recurring theme throughout the film, as many of the film’s male characters look to women or “holy trinities” of women and mother figures to try and give them the illusion of meaning in their lives. Whether it’s by taking care of them or fucking them, even Garfield’s character falls into this trap of needing to find himself by saving a girl or defining himself by his relationship with one. As intoxicating as the film is with its lush soundtrack and visuals, this is a troublesome aspect of it that feels as if its made for the male gaze and perspective exclusively. Female agency is not something you really find at all in the film, which is sad given It Follows strong female characterization.

The film’s underlying plot, that men need to discover and conquer mysteries to find meaning, only to find that everything worth doing has been done and that the pop culture and collectibles we use to define ourselves are “carnival barker prizes” that have been created between “a blowjob and an omelet” just to “make a few dollars;” is made repeatedly. We hear from multiple characters that songs and films are products, manufactured rebellion later recycled as nostalgia later to die as someone’s ironic wedding song. While there’s not much argument to be made, the film needs to endlessly expound on it, through multiple climaxes and misses opportunities to really make it efficiently. Characters compare the Hollywood life to Gatsby and we see signs of this through the film with parties dressed in the iconography of The Shining or Eyes Wide Shut. But even the film’s seeming Wizard of Oz-like climax with “The Songwriter” is undercut by Mitchell’s precious treatment of the film and needing to readdress the point made later in a bizarre subplot dealing the upper class “pharoahs” of Hollywood, who even more than The Songwriter want to re-enforce how empty life and possessions are, even as they treat women as trophies to take with them. At almost 2 and a half hours, the film is bloated and crammed full of too many characters and too many concepts, including a totally out of left field supernatural element that comes across as “It Follows” fan service involving a character called The Owl’s Kiss. While starting as a strong companion piece to something like Cronenberg’s Map To The Stars or Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, the film becomes self-indulgent, bordering on the almost quizzical and self-important nature of films like Nicholas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon.

And with all that, the film’s strengths make it curiously rewatchable. It’s something like The Big Lebowski, a film that was critically lambasted upon release because it is not what people expected after Fargo, but became a cult favorite. Under the Silver Lake isn’t as funny as Lebowski, but it has its moments of self-aware parody as we spy on character’s conversations about 12-year-old showrunners who are old souls and do the production design on their 12-episode order sitcoms. As an Angeleno, I also love seeing things I’ve experienced first hand like graveyard screenings at Forever, or the concerts at its Masonic Lodge, rooftop parties at The Standard, or The book-lined passage-ways of The Last Bookstore, things that may seem like filmmaker inventions but are day-to-day things in the Southland. Its not a film that’s easy to describe, or to recommend readily; its overlong and meandering with questionable narrative choices and beats (like hobo codes suggested in feces in a close-up of toilet for example), but like me, you may find still something bewitching and more than a little intoxicating Under the Silver Lake.